Referenda are a powerful empowerment of the people, they transfer decision-making authority to ordinary citizens, they topple the fundaments of representative democracy and they abolish social distinctions as all one person is worth is just one single vote.
For the same aforementioned reasons, however, referenda can be utterly destructive. In order to have a solid outcome, in fact, citizens must be given enough accurate information, the ability to participate in a free and open debate, and shall vote on the matter of the referendum rather than on themes directly correlated. Yet, as the campaign for the Italian constitutional referendum has entered its final week, it is easy to note how this is not always the case.
In order to overcome the fragility and the instability of the Italian political apparatus, no more than two years ago Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called for a radical legislative reform to alter the current balance of power. The young Prime Minister from Florence put forth a new system that would reduce the upper chamber — the Senate — both in numbers and scope. As things withstand in fact, the legislative branch in Italy is characterised by two specular Houses with equal powers as both the Senate and the lower chamber — the ‘Camera dei Deputati’ — are called to vote confidence on the government and to approve all legislations. According to the promoters of the Referendum, the inefficiency of the Italian political system and its instability — Italy has had 63 Prime Ministers in the past 70 years — could in fact be ascribed to having two different chambers, often with different majorities, gridlocking political decisions.
Citizens must be given enough accurate information, the ability to participate in a free and open debate, and shall vote on the matter of the referendum rather than on themes directly correlated.
However, since its proposal the reform has encountered fierce opposition by a significant majority of the population as people lamented a supposedly undemocratic nature of the Referendum, given its attempt to strip people of their right to vote Senators and the centralisation of power it would entail. In this scenario, last January Matteo Renzi — whom at the time had more than 40% of approval ratings — linked his political future to the outcome of the Referendum saying he would resign if the reform were not to pass.
Yet, after a corruption scandal hit his government last spring, Renzi’s approval ratings sunk to unprecedented lows, with the opposition from the radical left to the ultra-nationalist right ‘bandwagoning’ to use this vote to throw him out of office. All of a sudden, a Referendum on complex issues such as the repartition of power between regions and the national government became a plebiscite on the past and present reforms of the former Mayor of Florence.
To historians and politics geeks, however, such political phenomenon will not come as a surprise. In 1969, in fact, French President Charles De Gaulle called a very similar Referendum to change the composition and functions of the French Senate and, him too, announced that if the reforms were refused he would resign. In a France characterised by changing demographics and sentiments, as the wave of Civil Right Movements was altering the political focus of the young generation, the oppositions joined forces to depose the WWII hero, who was perceived as being too old to be fit for office. The reform was then rejected by 52% of the voters and De Gaulle laconically resigned the day after.
The phenomenon of politicising Referenda is therefore not a peculiarity of Italian politics but rather a recurring story that distorts political information. By politicising a technical Referendum, the oppositions and the Prime Minister himself have deprived Italian citizens of a free and open debate on the merits of the reform, transforming the vote of December 4, 2016 into a political quarrel on issues not even remotely affected by the institutional reorganisation. No-voters have led their campaign criticising everything Renzi has done since he took office, from education reform to economic policies, whereas the promoters of the Referendum have started a ‘project-fear’ depicting his resignation as a political catastrophe. In such a polarised debate little room has been left to discussing the proposed constitutional changes and the effects they would have on the Italian political apparatus since talking about GDP growth has greater significance for the general public than discussing legal clauses would.
Moreover, the already underperforming Italian economy and its fragile banking sector have been put in distress by the uncertainty of the vote, as the executive will be under the sword of Damocles until the 4th of December. For this reason, analysts have depicted the consequences of a NO-vote as a new Brexit for European markets, since the consequent power vacuum could allegedly put Italy on the verge of a new crisis, with serious implication for the whole Eurozone.
Despite being, in my view, an excessively pessimistic prediction — after all, Italy is the only Southern European country to have emerged from the 2008 crisis without external assistance — the risky consequences of the December vote in Italy should be held as a warning for any country that in the future will try to give Referenda different meanings from the one written on the ballot.
Referenda are a powerful empowerment of the people as long as voters are informed. When this ceases to be the case and they are turned into means to pursue political change, they just become a threat to a country’s democracy. TMM